Lant Pritchett on why we struggle to think in systems (and look for heroes and villains instead)

January 22, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

This passage in Lant Pritchett’s new book, The Rebirth of Education, (reviewed here yesterday), had me gurgling with pleasure. It rebirth-education-lant-pritchettexplains, in vintage Pritchett prose, why we all find it so hard to think in terms of systems, rather than agents (i.e. heroes and villains). He totally nails the origins of that glazed look I see in the eyes of my Oxfam colleagues when I start going on about systems, complexity, emergence etc:

“I am going on at length about this because this book is about explaining and fixing poor learning outcomes by fixing broken systems, not fixing people. But I have to go on about this because system explanations just have no appeal to people, myself included. Agent-centered explanations are powerfully appealing to us, on a very deep level. Believe me, if your child says, “Daddy, tell me a story,” you can be sure he or she wants a story with agents, heroes and villains who have goals and make plans and overcome obstacles.

Even economists when they try to explain Pareto optimality resort to making the ontological unfamiliar seem plausible by invoking “an invisible hand”—and hence making it seem familiar. “Oh,” say sophomores on hearing the invisible hand metaphor, “like an agent with a hand willed it. Now I get it”—and hence deeply don’t get it.

But even as an economist who loves system explanations in the domain of my expertise, I am bored silly by historians who tell the stories of structures and institutions and geographic constraints (I have never been able to make my way through any small part of the French historian Braudel, for instance, though I often think that I should). I love a good yarn about American independence that does not involve the carrying trade but does involve George Washington and his bravery. The appeal of agent-centered, human narrative explanations over systemic explanations is why no one—except perhaps you—is reading this book.

systems thinkingThis is because nearly all of our success as organisms is driven by understanding stuff and agents. Just as none of us really needs to understand quantum mechanics or general relativity to live our whole lives as successful, fulfilled, productive individuals, the number of times any of us needs to understand systems is vanishingly small. You can have a successful professional career without understanding systems. You can have a happy marriage without understanding systems (perhaps more likely, in fact: try asking your spouse sometime about the system of marriage—such as “Why did monogamy as an organizational form of the family triumph over polygamy?”—and see how that works for you). You can raise lovely children without understanding systems.

You just never need to really understand systems, until you do. Because even though life is always really about agents, it is also really always about systems.”